Sunday, November 18

Peering At Two Until Fourteen

‘When you lot go out, I always want to come with you,’ she said, or something similar. She said that or something similar. We were next to each other, smoking in front of a locked doorway. Not her but I knew someone else who was so sad that her colleagues did not invite her out, so, feeling a pang, I extended the invitation to her that evening, and she declined. The bar was busy but she was there with everyone else, despite her earlier decline. She stood nervously at the table and sipped on her drink, she said nothing. Her big round eyes shot around, her mouth clasped about the straw, and she said nothing. In fact her figure was so small she barely cut any presence at all into the fog of a busy Friday night pub. All night she just stood there, saying nothing. If someone offered her a drink, she said yes, but otherwise she said nothing. Still she stood there, not saying anything. Quite soon I found myself stood next to her, observing the conversations and laughter around me, nervous that she might speak to me and I would be tied to her. If, for a moment, she spoke then it was about herself, so terribly dramatic and boring that, after a question or two, one learned to steer clear. I sighed and looked for someone to talk to. November drinking on a Friday, the closing, cold, fresh nights. After an hour or so it would calm down. ‘I’ve had four drinks and I’m already drunk!’ she said. ‘I’m chatting such nonsense!’ Hmm, yes, I nodded and took a sip. ‘You going for a fag?’ she asked. I was not. If I smoked with her then she would talk only of herself and so dull that I would begin to feel ill. ‘My mum was trying to set me up with this fella… and I met him Sunday down the King Harold… I can’t go back there now.’ I asked why not. ‘Because he got hold of me. In front of everyone! I can’t show my face there again!’ I told her that no one would have cared. ‘Had to text him and apologise… I was so drunk! ... He text back straight away. He apologised too.’ It was nice, positive, I said, that he had text back so soon. Yes, she said, but it was still embarrassing, and she could not show her face in the King Harold again. ‘I’ve been a single a year now.’ I told her welcome to the club and wondered if I should break the seal just to get away from her terrible natter.
‘Single is better,’ I said—‘People are shit.’
What inspired it, I don’t know, but I searched for my childhood village. Two until fourteen. Peering at my computer screen and seeing the place of my youth as either a series of roads and landmarks, or satellite images of unkempt grass and grey row houses. It all seemed so long ago. The small man was dropped — dangling and hooked — into the middle of a street, and so I navigated him here and there until I came to where my earliest memory sprouted. Why are you doing this to yourself, I thought. It was very unusual of me to confront that kind of nostalgia so openly. For years I had avoided these places of history. If I ever passed them in a car or on public transport, then I was so sad looking out of the window that I turned away. Such curiosities were usually explored alone, but there I was in a hot office, surrounded by people, revisiting my childhood during a brief reprieve from the overwhelming workload. How little it had changed. The council had planted a tree in the middle of a patch of grass where my friends and I used to play football. The tree was feeble. I traced my steps to where my friend lived, where I would knock for him every night. There were children next door to his old house now when there weren’t children before: a small white boy with blonde hair holding the doorframe and calling his sister in the garden. The weather was grey, overcast, an autumn half-term. I stared. Where was he now? Last I heard he became a hairdresser in the next village over, then his girlfriend broke up with him and he moved back home.
I thought of what I would be if I were still in that village. I would not be a house nor would I be a street but I would be different to the person who presses these keys right now. Why, back then, I only had eyes for adventure stories in the library that smelled good on wood spread thinly. Almost certainly I would be able to drive; one couldn’t live in that place and not have the license to drive away from it, if only for a day or so. For some reason, I think that I would be in love by now; at the age of thirty-three I would be in love and most of the village would know, otherwise I would be regarded as a strange young man, stared at down the local or queried while buying ingredients to make a meal for one. But, no! I would definitely be in love, possibly married and with children who I’d escort to Saturday morning sport clubs or twee social affairs. But I would be in love. She and I would probably have a house (I could afford) and at our wedding I had a best man, and my past would not be so washed away. There was something about the bright colours with which the road passed through the village. I have visited it only in dreams and the short stories I wrote in my twenties. Everything was almost exactly as I had left it. Beneath the clouds, the corner shop was now a hardware store. Magazines lined a single wall, alcopops stood in crates, huddled in cardboard, sweets in plastic tubs, VHS stacked for rental, everyone in the village watching the same things, a bakery at the rear, and smells clung to each part of it like continents.
It had only been a minute or so, but it was enough to leave me feeling exhausted. I closed the window. I sighed, caught my breath. Where was I? Ah yes, I had been… and continued with my work.

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